Genetics and human behaviour

6 June 2016

I was apprehensive when asked by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to chair the Working Party which has produced this Report. First, because the subject has an ugly history: within living memory perverted science was put at the service of ideologies that led to the subjugation and even extermination of people judged to be genetically ‘inferior’. Secondly, because modern behavioural genetics is rich in promise but, as yet, poor in hard verifiable evidence. Thirdly, because it seemed unlikely that one would be able to reach any agreed recommendations in this highly complex and controversial field.

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All these fears have been dispelled over the past two years in which the Working Party has met eleven times, held six fact-finding sessions with more than twenty experts, commissioned reviews of the scientific evidence, and undertaken a public consultation. It became clear that this investigation, believed to be the first of its kind, is necessary if we want to avoid the mistakes of the past, make an impartial assessment of the emerging scientific evidence, and reach valid moral and legal conclusions about the potential applications of the research.

The agreed recommendations are important, but perhaps even more significant are the careful explanation that we have attempted to give of the methods of research in this area, the assessment of the current evidence for genetic influences on behaviour, and the balanced discussion of the ethical and legal choices that lie ahead. Our expectation is that this Report will help non-specialists to understand what behavioural genetics aspires to achieve, what has thus far been achieved and equally importantly, how much has not yet been achieved. We hope that it will promote an informed debate between scientists, policy makers, and the lay public about the ethical and legal implications.

I should like to thank the members of the Working Party for their hard work and dedication; working with them was an enjoyable and stimulating experience. We are all grateful to Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, for her guidance and sound judgment. Tor Lezemore made a truly outstanding contribution as our inventive scribe, editor and secretary; her sparkling humour and enthusiasm kept us going. Thanks are also due to Julia Fox, Yvonne Melia, Susan Bull, Natalie Bartle and Nicola Perrin for their support. Finally, since this is the last Report which will be published under Sir Ian Kennedy’s chairmanship of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, I should like to pay tribute to his enormous contribution to bioethics in general, and to his role as mentor of this Working Party in particular.

The Working Party wishes to thank the many organisations and individuals who have assisted its work, particularly those who attended fact-finding meetings or submitted responses to the public consultation. The Working Party is very grateful to Professor Sir Robert Hinde, Professor Erik Parens, Professor Nikolas Rose, Tim Radford and Professor Sir Michael Rutter, who all reviewed an earlier draft of the Report. Their comments contained constructive criticisms and suggestions for further discussion, which were extremely helpful.

The Working Party would like to thank the following individuals from whom it commissioned papers reviewing the scientific
evidence in research in behavioural genetics: Professor John Crabbe, Professor Jeffery Gray, Professor Nicholas Mackintosh and Professor Terrie Moffitt. The Working Party is also grateful to individuals who responded to requests for advice on specific parts of the Report, including Dr Jonathan Flint, Mrs Nicola Padfield and Professor Mark Rothstein.

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